Television has been accused of eroding our society’s morals ever since it first appeared and pushed aside radio (which also had been accused of eroding society’s morals). And maybe I am simply paying attention more than I did previously, but I feel as though landmines are being used as weapons and plot devices more often in movies and on television in the last couple of years than in the early part of the century. If one of the great achievements of the Mine Ban Treaty was the stigmatization of the use of the weapon, then the repeated exposure to landmines in mass media may just erode that stigma. In the 1990s, Westerners were faced with their first images of the results of landmines as the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and other activists sought to demonstrate the impact of weapons. We saw landmine victims and their injuries for the first time since the end of the Vietnam War 20 years earlier. In the fifteen years since the Mine Ban Treaty was signed, those images have faded but the visceral reaction to landmines remains. And some lazy television and movie writers take advantage of that visceral reaction and thereby reduce its impact over time.
A few introductory points…
First, American audiences are lucky that for all but a handful of soldiers landmines are only found on television and in the movies.
Second, the Manitoba Campaign to Ban Landmines (MBCBL) has compiled a partial list of movies in which landmines are used. It’s not comprehensive (e.g., “Predator” is missing) but it is a very good start and definitely offers a flavor for how landmines have been used (Manitoba Campaign to Ban Landmines). Some of the uses that MBCBL identifies show the true nature of mines in terms of the harm they cause (see “Charlie Wilson’s War” and the impact of landmines on refugees), while others are intended as humorous (see “Thank You for Smoking” which ironically asks us to take pity upon the makers of landmines, just as we would take pity on tobacco companies), and others are plot points (see “No Man’s Land” which uses a landmine to address the ethnic violence that was pervasive in the wars of former Yugoslavia). Many of the uses of landmines are in historical contexts, showing them as part of World War II conflict and not a menace in the modern world.
Third, TV Tropes points out the way that landmines are used in television. If the main character steps on a landmine, he will hear a “click” and be able to defuse the mine; if an expendable character steps on a mine, either the mines goes off instantly or after a beat in which the camera zooms in on the mine and then the character’s face so we see the moment of realization before the blast (TV Tropes). This is lazy writing. Mines don’t go “click” and you never have the chance to defuse them after activating them. If you did, they would not be the terrible weapons they are. I have heard stories about soldiers who – after seeing movies like “Behind Enemy Lines” in which one of the villains defuses a mine after stepping on it – actually went out and stepped on a mine with the intent to demonstrate how they could defuse a mine. The results are unfortunately very predictable and horrific.
Finally, the movie “Predators” does a pretty good job of explaining of one of the reasons anti-personnel landmines were viewed as having “military utility” while also reinforcing their insidiousness and inhumanity. In the scene, three characters – Edwin, Isabelle and Royce – are walking when Edwin sets off what the script calls an “alien bear trap” which either breaks Edwin’s lower leg or severs his Achilles tendon; either way, he can’t walk. Isabelle picks Edwin up, but Royce tells her not to. Royce says, “That trap wasn’t meant to kill. Just to maim.” Then Royce says of the person (the titular Predator) who placed the trap, “Don’t you get it? This is a trick… [The Predator] wants your compassion. Your pity. To feel something for this man. To be human.” (“Predators,” pdf). People who used anti-personnel landmines counted on the fact that soldiers would “leave no man behind” and in addition to the person who was permanently maimed by the mine, two or more other soldiers would help the maimed individual away from the battle-line. The military math was simple: kill one person, and you have one fewer enemies to face; maim one person and you have several fewer enemies to face.
So, on to the recent examples. I blame Jersey Shore for a lot of this. The constant reference to “unfortunate looking girls” as “landmines” has put the term in common parlance for viewers of the show (E Online). There is also a popular drinking game called landmines (The College Survival Handbook). Between these two uses of the word, landmines have started to lose their association with the weapon.
In the last month, landmines have been on Top Gear (BBC America) and Psych (USA Networks). On Top Gear (which has used featured mine-clearing vehicles and mine-resistant vehicles in the past), Jeremy Clarkson asked the question, “what’s worse than stepping on an upturned plug;” to which James May responded “A landmine” only to have Clarkson over-rule him and say that feces would be worse. They meant this in a joking manner, but for the presenters of Top Gear, dog feces and up-turned plugs are more likely threats than landmines. If only the same were true all over the world.
On Psych, well, I’ll let USA Networks explain the plot of “SantaBarbaraTown” because I simply could not make this up:
Shawn and Gus sit down to discuss their next move. But before they can get a word out, their lives are threatened by a landmine that has been planted under their couch — a special landmine that will trigger when they stand up. Shawn and Gus realize that Carp had a cache of these same landmines in the weapons closet at his beach house. Shawn and Gus manage to call the SBPD to come in and freeze the device before it blows. The SBPD are able to disarm the bomb and Shawn and Gus are saved.
Shawn and Gus’ next move is to find Vest, so they head to the headquarters of “Feed Everyone.” There, Shawn realizes that “Feed Everyone” is a scam organization and that Drake’s “non-profit” is supplying weapons to Africa, not food.
Ha ha. Isn’t that funny? And since USA Networks is trying to use its “Characters Unite” platform to raise awareness about various social issues and one of the stars of Psych, Dulé Hill has done outreach to combat discrimination, shame on them for using landmines and the arms trade as a lazy plot device. Dulé Hill should also know better (I’m starting to feel like a scold) since he was in the cast of the West Wing which devoted an entire episode during Season 3 to landmines and their impact in the former Yugoslavia.
In November 2011, an episode of the FX Networks’s show “Sons of Anarchy” featured a fight between rival gangs. While for most gang conflicts on television, a gunfight would have been enough, Sons of Anarchy decided to up the stakes and had one of the characters, Kozik (good guy? Bad guy? Did it matter?), step on a landmine and die; “blown to pieces” according to the episode recap. Now, here’s where I get upset: the same re-capper says, “You gotta give it to the ‘Sons of Anarchy’ writers: they always find new and creative ways to find spectacular ways for their characters to die” (Buddy TV). So landmines are now “creative” and “spectacular” and not inhumane and cruel. And unfortunately landmines are not a “new” way to die; landmines have been killing people for over 150 years.
The NBC comedy “Parks and Recreation” has used landmines several times. In the episode, “Road Trip,” the character Ron Swanson demonstrates his “libertarian” credentials by giving a 9 year-old girl a Claymore landmine to “protect her property” and then only takes it back after being accosted by the girl’s mother (HuffPost TV). In a later episode, around the election campaign of the main character, Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope, an anti-landmine advocate is referred to as a “floozy” but at least the “pro-landmine” position is depicted as negative (The Vulture).
Last, the now-cancelled FOX program “Alcatraz” focused its sixth episode on a landmine specialist from the Korean War who is brought to the present-day and places landmines around San Francisco, including a park, a playground and a beach. Sam Neill’s Hauser steps on a landmine at the beach location, hears the “click” and then has to wait for someone to try and defuse the mine. Someone does defuse the mine, but dies in the process whilst saving Neill’s hero. Lazy, crass, tear-jerking mumbo-jumbo with a villain who uses landmines being Evil with a capital “E” and a child-killer, but at least the show asked the question of how would we (Americans) feel if landmines were present in our country and did not shy away from showing the true damage they can cause (Screen Rant; Wikipedia).
Landmines are a very real threat to hundreds of thousands of people around the world. These television programs had an opportunity to educate people about that threat, but too often went for the cheap gag or the lazy plot device. Do better television.
Michael P. Moore
March 12, 2013